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Archive for October, 2007

Praeludium

Praeludium

I am waiting for you to come
through the door like the clouds
wait for the sunrise to throw just
enough light to trace the smooth and

supple line of your mouth, or
the curve of your waist. All morning
I have sat here and wasted my time,
until this time. Until this now

when you are about to open the door
and come through, like a sunrise,
like a whisper, and sit across from me,
and say hello for the first time.

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Untitled

This is the final humiliation
the clicking of your heels
in the hallway.
the razor of your shoulders,
the sharp, tight skin of your back.
Your neck and your ass,
too small, and your shoes
clicking on the hallway floor.

This is the final humilation
Your smell of jasmine
in his mouth.
His hands in your soft
panties and your arched back
and Oh god, like that
and decades without
your too little ass
and your shoes clicking
on the hallway floor.

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Lacrimosa

Matthew Fouts

               Lacrimosa

Where are you going in your grey jacket
        closed tight against your black shirt?
I am obsessed with the curve of your waist
        as if I could hold it and keep you here.

Where will you go tonight with your soft heart
        and your cheekbones? this night
and the next (and the next).

Where will you be when the train shakes
        the windows of my house
and the hot engine of an airplane
        moans across the empty sky?

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A Sonnett

Matt Fouts

Online dating

You may not have the finest picture on
the page, but your byline that reads,
“Oh where have all the nice men gone,”
is fair enough. Your background photo leads
me to believe you really do like long
walks upon the shore, and even though
you somehow spelled the word “romantik” wrong
and I don’t often take the time to go
to Europe as you have, I don’t see why
your typos and your puffed up vitae should
prevent someone from giving you a try
(You’ve only said what anybody would).
        But if you’re thirty-five years old, I am,
        without a doubt, the king of old Siam.

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If any of you have been reading the compendium this week, you may have noticed that it sounds all intellectual and pointy headed. The reason for this is that yesterday (saturday), I had to take the comprehensive M.A. Exam in Literature and Rhetoric, which is the test you have to take to graduate. Ya’see, NIU doesn’t require an M.A. student to write a thesis. Instead they want you to prove that, in your two years (in my case 2.5 years), you have gained a general idea about what goes on within the walls of Reavis hall. It’s a four hour essay exam. I think I did pretty well. By the time I got to the third essay question, I was bored and spent extra time trying to work as much alliteration as possible into my essay. Sot I think it is most likely that I passed.

Anyway, the long posts this week are the practice essays I wrote in order to get a handle on the required reading. Go ahead and look at them if you have trouble sleeping. Otherwise just enjoy this week’s sing along.

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One thing that Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves has in common with Shakespeare’s King Lear is the idea, explored in both works, that justice is, at best, blind. On the surface, these two works would appear to have little in common. However, when examined with regard to their views on the ultimate justice of life, both of these works can be seen as being about the reduction of life, in old age or otherwise, to nothing more than a mindless struggle to assert one’s will against the inexorable approach of death.

King Lear is a little more straightforward than The waves. While it does have a few ambiguous characters, most notably the king, himself, for the most part, we can tell who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. In King Lear, the guilty are punished at the end. Goneril and Regan both suffer the ultimate punishment of death for their various crimes against the other characters in the play (casting Lear out of their home, their blinding of Gloucester, their adulterous yearning for Edmund, etc.). Edmund too is ultimately killed for his attempt to usurp his half-brother, Edgar. So far, so good. Justice has been served.

The problem is it doesn’t stop there. Many of the virtuous (or at least good) characters suffer the same fate. Cordelia has remained true to her own morality, despite the fact that it cost her a share in her father’s kingdom and caused her to be sent away in marriage to the king of France. Cordelia also remains true to her father and even returns with an army to overthrow her sisters and return Lear to his rightful position as king. And yet, she is killed at the end. Her reconciliation with Lear makes her death so much the more poignant and serves to highlight the lack of justice. Of course Lear dies as well, as does Gloucester, after he has been reconciled to his legitimate son, Edgar. The effect of this is to make one wonder whether justice has actually been served, or was Gloucester on to something when he said “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport”

This quote could just as easily have been uttered by Bernard who, at the end of The Waves has come to represent all six of the major characters in Woolf’s novel. Justice is not flawed in The Waves, it simply isn’t there. This is most easily demonstrated by the death of Percival. Although he is not one of the six characters who have speaking roles in Woolf’s novel, Percival nevertheless plays an important role. He is admired (at least that if not more) by all six main characters, and his death is a pivotal event in the story. Percival’s death is the first indication the characters get of the absence of justice in human existence. He is also the first taste of death for the main characters. If Percival, who always seemed super-human to the six, can die, death may strike anybody at any time. As the story nears its end and we read the long monologue by Bernard, we see that the richness of life has largely been lost and the characters are reduced, like the major players in King Lear to a plain and fruitless struggle against death, whether that death be just or no.

The tragic aspect of King Lear may be a little more obvious. Once the bodies start to pile up it becomes hard to deny. The Waves, with its much longer story arc, is not a tragedy in the formal sense. However, the lack of any clear sense of justice in both of these works, as well as the omnipresent sense of death lurking just behind the curtain, show these two works to be similar to the extent that they both ultimately reduce life to a mere struggle against death.

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Ultimate Order

(introduction)

Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves and Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” both seek a similar goal, transcendence. As we shall see, they make their attempt in slightly different ways, with a varying degree of success.

When I say that these two works seek to achieve transcendence, I am speaking of the work in the same sense used by Kenneth Burke. In his work, A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke claims that as man is a rational, by which he means symbol-using, animal, all use of symbols represents, on some level an attempt to transcend they symbol and achieve the thing symbolized. Burke also describes a hierarchy of terms (which are really nothing more than symbols) in which ideas that seem antithetical to one another can actually be seen as proceeding sequentially toward an ultimate order in which they are contained. We can see this same impulse in Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which is essentially a litany of what are seemingly unrelated phenomena. Whitman is trying to create, by showing us a representative sample, an ultimate of ultimate orders in which the entire universe is a connected part of a unified whole.

Whitman’s use of the human body (his own) as the metaphorical space within which all is contained (as do mystics of most if not all religions) is his attempt to achieve a sense of identity. Identity is another Burkean term which means (in a nutshell) the desire to overcome the innate physical and mental separation that we all subconsciously feel and feel guilty for. Whitman, through his litany of life in all its varied forms, is trying to transcend the separateness of human existence and achieve a state of identity with the cosmos.

Virginia Woolf, in her novel, The Waves, is trying to achieve something like the same result as Whitman. She does not appear to be attempting a oneness with the cosmos, but she is trying to create a sense of identification between the reader and the characters (just as the characters are trying to do with one another) by showing us their entire lives in little snippets. She also tries to create a sense of identification with the way in which she has the characters tell their own story in a sort of inner voice. When Jinny tells us how she revels in her own body and her power to say “come” to any man and he will come, we get the sense that this is not something she is articulating consciously, but rather it is as if her essence is speaking directly to us. The effect is rather like that of a cubist painting. We see the characters from an almost limitless number of angles, almost, but not quite, and that is where both The Waves and “Song of Myself” run into trouble.

Both of these works rely on a representative sample in order to imply the whole of human experience. In that sense, they really only exemplify the separation that all human beings have from one another. One might ask of Whitman, why list so many sundry items when a long list will fall just as short of infinity as would a short list. Likewise, Woolf is unable to make us achieve a state of complete identity with the six characters of her novel. The most she can do is give us the most important events and rely on our own desire to identify with the characters in order to fill in the gaps.

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